JFSA President & CEO Nammie Ichilov gave the following speech at the For Hope For Humanity Benefit on March 30, 2023
Thank you, to Composer Stephen DeCesare. We are so grateful for his incredible talents, and for caring enough to (at his own expense) take the time to turn his orchestral compositions into a more compact sextet, performed so beautifully by our musicians this evening. Leonard Bernstein, obm, once said, “In the beginning was the note, and the note was with Gd. And whosoever can reach for that note, reach high and bring it back to us on earth, to our earthly ears–he is a composer.” Right now, I could not agree more with Bernstein’s description. Thank you, Stephen.
I’d like to begin with a brief reading. The following exert is from a short story titled, “Dancing with Gd,” written by Halberstam and Leventhal.
“It was the fall of 1944 at Auschwitz, and Hungarian Jews—the last nationality to be transported to the camp—had arrived in massive numbers. The furnaces worked overtime as the inmates were sped to their inexorable fate. Everything about the camp seemed so surreal—the perpetual fog cover of smoke and ash, the barren landscape of barbed wire and slime—that it served to mirror the prisoners’ own profound sense of displacement and disorientation. Everything had happened so fast: being crammed into the cattle cars that had disgorged them at Auschwitz; the quick, merciless dismemberment of families as spouses, children, parents, and siblings were torn apart from one another during the selections; being dispassionately stripped of the clothing and personal belongings that made them human, and the freezing-cold showers and assembly-line delousing that had followed. In the course of only minutes, the new inmates had lost everything they owned, everything they loved.”
These are powerful words describing the darkest of times. At this point during the Holocaust, doubt had begun to creep into the thoughts of even the most hopeful and optimistic prisoners. Days had turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Where was Gd? Where was the world? Where was the humanity?
The story could end here, with six million Jews murdered. An additional five million non-Jewish innocent and vulnerable lives dead. Of the survivors, millions more lives shattered. Possessions stolen. Properties falsely claimed.
Thankfully no. This is where the story of resilience, determination, and downright grit begins again. With the war over, a glimmer of light can be seen at the end of this dark, cold, and endless tunnel. The Jewish people have been here before. Three thousand, three hundred, and thirty-five years ago next week, when we relive our Exodus story from slavery to freedom during the Passover holiday. We have experienced rebuilding our culture, our faith, and our traditions. This time, however, it’s the world who needed help understanding how something like this could happen in the “modern era.” We were supposed to be living in the civilized era.
As a society, we still haven’t learned THE lesson from these events. Seventy-eight years since the end of the war, and according to a 2020 Holocaust Claims Conference survey of 11,000 respondents nationwide, 63% of millennials and Gen Z’ers in Texas, did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. 58% of the Texas respondents had seen Holocaust denial or historical distortion on social media and online. 64% of them had seen a Nazi symbol on their social media feeds. And 13% thought that the Jews themselves caused the Holocaust! Very dark data indeed. But the light… the light is that of these same respondents, 80% believe it is important to continue to teach about the Holocaust.
This data alone would be reason enough to explain the motivation for over 20,000 students this year to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in person, and for almost 27,000 students to have been impacted through Senate Bill 1828 during Holocaust Remembrance week this past January. However, that’s not the whole story of the world today. A recent report released by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that antisemitic incidents increased nationally by 36% in 2022. Assaults on Jews were up 26%; incidents of harassment of Jews 29%; and acts of vandalism against Jewish homes and institutions increased by 52%.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum is a key element in our nation’s fight against hate. But the museum cannot do it alone. In fact, the Jewish community cannot do it alone. One of the key lessons of the museum is to impact every visitor with the question, “Now that you know, what will you do?”
In reflecting on the darkness of the Holocaust, the Jewish community learned an important lesson. The terrible evils that took place occurred not only because of hate, but more so because of indifference. Where were the people, the citizens, the neighbors, the friends who did not have hate in their hearts? Where were the people who did nothing, knowing what was happening was wrong?
I fully realize that this evening my words are falling on the ears of the proverbial choir. Everyone here this evening has stepped up and has shown up. In fact, we are here this evening to honor an incredible family of upstanders… the Dawson Family. This is a family with a generational history of stepping up. Their humility was in full force when they were asked if they could be honored by the museum. How they behave, what they do, who they are is so instinctive, that their response to the request was – well actually, it was Sam’s response – “You, know we’re not Jewish, right?” Yes, Sam, we know.
And that’s exactly why we are saying thank you to you and your family this evening. Although the Holocaust is very personal to the Jewish community the lessons learned are universal. In 1946, Chaim Weizmann spoke at the 22nd Zionist Congress, and shared, “Now in the light of past and present events, the bitter truth must be spoken. We feared too little, and we hoped too much. We underestimated the bestiality of the enemy; we overestimated the humanity, the wisdom, the sense of justice of our friends.” Although in 1946 these words rung true, as I stand here this evening, and as we are gathered, Jew and non-Jew together, I must believe that our faith in the humanity, wisdom, and sense of justice of our friends is in fact justified. And I am confident in this claim knowing we have partners like the Dawsons, and like all of you.
Remember, now that you know, what will you do?
Will you visit our museum?
Will you delve deeper into the subject matter?
Will you stand up when a denier claims the Holocaust never happened?
Will you join the many generous donors of tonight’s event? and
Will you continue to support the museum’s educational efforts in whatever meaningful way speaks to you?
No matter what you do, we ask you to leave here this evening as an ambassador of the museum… bringing light where there is darkness, and bringing vision where there is sightlessness.
In closing, I would be remiss to not specifically recognize the Holocaust Memorial Museum team. They like to say that they are small but mighty. That they pack a punch well above their weight class. But what I want Leslie and Jessica here, and Beth and Allison at the Museum Experience to know, is that no words that I could share would be more powerful than the recognition that this evening’s event has raised over $800,000 to date. We are all truly grateful to tonight’s event chairs and extended committee, both here at Security Services and at the Museum Experience at the Jewish Community Campus. We could not have done this without you.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, obm once wrote, “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” Our honorees this evening are a multi-generational family who has demonstrated the ability to turn prayer into action… our Holocaust Memorial Museum, and therefore our community, is better because of their efforts. Thank you to the entire Dawson Family and to everyone here this evening for helping to move the museum from “the best kept secret” to the best educational resource in building upstanders in Greater San Antonio!